Making Money Support Slow Food: A Gathering at Shelburne Farms, Vermont

View from Shelburne Farms, Courtesy of Elizabeth Jones

Most academic and finance industry conferences – even those on responsible investment – are held in nice hotels. Sometimes it’s in a beautiful setting, but still in a hotel nonetheless. So when I got into a car with three strangers in Brooklyn and started driving north to Vermont, I knew I was in for something different. This conference was held in a tent at one of the United State’s great estates, Shelburne Farms, in the rolling hills on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain.

It is likely that you have heard of the Slow Food movement, which started in Italy and has spread around the world, and works to “defend biodiversity, spread taste education, and connect producers of excellent foods.” Slow Money was started with intention not of slowing down money, but of enabling investment in producers of slow food, and of rebuilding biodiversity and fertility particularly in the United States.  So this bucolic setting was a natural place to hold a conference on ‘Slow Money ’ – a working educational farm and a beautiful backdrop in one of the states with the strongest local food movements.

Farmers and small value-added businesses that support them need investment capital to make what they do possible, and in our risk-averse and returns-driven society, it is hard to make this happen. In many ways, the goal of Slow Money is to circumvent, then change, the way that investment capital flows. That is not easy, but is a worthy goal.

Just a few of the questions that have yet to be answered are:

•    How can regular people – not venture capitalist investors – make investments in the close-to-home producers that they care about without putting themselves at risk?
•    How can people make returns from those investments while charging a fair price on loans or taking a legitimate equity stake?
•    What is the best way to diversify investments to get a stable return while still keeping a close connection to the invested-in farms and businesses ?

There are, with good reason, Securities and Exchange Commission regulations that govern investments by individuals, particularly those that are not ‘accredited investors’ or investors with over $1 million in net worth. The idea is to protect small investors from getting cheated or taking on risk that they don’t understand. These rules present problems for regular people trying to make a diversity of small ownership investments in businesses like dairies, bakeries, and millers.

The conference was an inspiring and exciting exchange of ideas, with great speakers like Bill McKibben, and farmers Joel Salatin and Eliot Coleman. After much discussion the major issue of how to make this vision possible for regular investors remains.  I look forward to seeing how this movement develops in the future, and hope that it helps to change finance as we know it.

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